Perhaps it’s their shells, the contours mimicking the landscapes they inhabit, craggy coastlines in miniature.
Perhaps it’s their pungent, briny liquor, crashing like surf across the tongue. Perhaps it’s those evocative names, derived from actual locales: Pemaquid! Skookum! Tatamagouche! Or perhaps it’s because they’re still alive when you eat them. Does any food pack such a powerful sense of place?
Rare is the culture that doesn’t love oysters. They are everywhere. But they’re also decidedly Somewhere: within its singular shell, each oyster carries its provenance like a fingerprint. Knocking one back is like mainlining the cove it came from.
In today’s global food economy, geography is more or less moot. Maine lobsters turn up in São Paulo, Dungeness crab in Shanghai, Norwegian salmon roe at your suburban IKEA. I live in New York City, where pretty much any foreign delicacy is readily had, from jamón ibérico to blowfish. But not English Colchesters or French Belons or South African Knysnas or hundreds of other varieties of oyster that thrive beyond our shores. The U.S. government forbids the import of oysters from abroad, with exceptions for those from Canada, Mexico, Chile, South Korea, and New Zealand (the latter three are almost never sold stateside, in any case). Oysters are among the last of the “go-to” foods: you have to go to them.
So for three years I’ve done just that, circling the globe on an international oyster quest — part-time, mind you, but with full-time conviction. It helps that I travel for a living. Wherever my peregrinations take me, bivalves form the subplot. I’ve sampled minerally Grebbestads in Göteborg, monstrous madrasensis oysters in Mumbai, clean-flavored Nha Trangs in Saigon, fishy Mali Stons in Croatia. I’ve combed 19 countries in search of the perfect oyster, and the perfect oyster bar. And though I’ve eaten several thousand since my quest began — and twice sliced my hand shucking them — I’ve never once tired of their taste.
I first fell for oysters at New York’s Grand Central Station, where the renowned Oyster Bar, opened in 1913, serves 2 million bivalves a year. On a standard night they’ll list 30 on the menu: Moonstones from Rhode Island; Phantom Creeks from British Columbia; Meximotos from Baja; perhaps savory Conway Cups from Prince Edward Island — which taste, no joke, like chicken. Just as every celebrated stage actress finds her way to Broadway, every North American oyster worth its salt makes its way to Grand Central. There’s an irony in this, for New York Harbor was once the hub of all Oysterdom, sending its bountiful harvest across the nation and around the world. The great tide has since reversed: today the city exports none and imports untold millions.
Many a night I passed in the vaulted chambers of Grand Central, conferring with shucker Luis Iglesias about his picks for the day. My favorites were invariably East Coast. It’s said that people prefer oysters from the water they grew up swimming in, and that’s certainly true for me. Devouring a briny Maine oyster never fails to catapult me back to childhood summers, inhaling that brisk seafoamy air and, just as often, a wave up my nose.
Biologists have documented some 400 species of oysters worldwide. But even within the same species no two will have the exact same flavor, depending on water temperature, salinity levels, tidal patterns, mating cycles, the plankton they eat, and the mineral content of their habitat. The variables can be infinitesimal: a Wellfleet, Massachusetts, oyster harvested at six feet deep may taste wholly unlike one found at seven. The thrill of oyster-eating is picking up on nuances of texture and taste from one hemisphere, continent, bay, or creek to the next.
Like wine, oysters exhibit a discernible terroir. Indeed, the vocabulary of oyster flavors overlaps with that of wine: terms like “crisp,” “buttery,” and “flinty” are common, as are comparisons to cucumber, melon, and green apple. The menu at Boston’s Neptune Oyster bar — an Art Deco jewel box in the North End — has some particularly fanciful (some might say absurd) descriptions, noting a “buttered popcorn” finish in the Katama Bays from Martha’s Vineyard, traces of “mushroom” in the Marion Ports, also from Massachusetts, “raw sweet pea” in Rhode Island’s Rome Points, even “hints of Brie” in the nearby Ninigret Ponds.
Not only do the flavors of oysters vary widely, so do the rituals that attend their consumption. Some people treat them as delivery devices for Tabasco. Some lay their slippery prizes on saltines. Some dunk them in Bloody Marys or pints of stout. The Fujian Chinese fold them into starchy omelettes laced with chilies and pork fat. Some chefs gussy up half shells with minced jalapeño, coriander, and a cool tomato gelée. Some prefer their oysters poached, grilled, fried, stewed, smoked, boiled, pickled, or, God help us all, smothered in bread crumbs and butter and cheese. Some presume oysters to be a ticket to bed, and don’t care how they’re prepared, just as long as they get some. But a purist takes his oysters straight, no chaser. (You wouldn’t taste-test an espresso by dousing it with soy milk, would you?) I don’t necessarily eat the whole dozen naked — a good mignonette can be a thing of beauty — but my first oyster is always unadorned, a visceral shot of the shore.
Humans have used oysters throughout history — as fertilizer, as ballast, as material for roads and landfill, and as food. It was the ancient Romans who first learned to farm them, but wild oysters were harvested long before that. Prehistoric peoples left mounds of discarded shells, called middens, as evidence of their ostreaphilia. Archaeologists have found shell heaps in such far-flung locations as Brazil, Scotland, and Australia.
In America, the oyster’s heyday came in the 19th century, when every seaside town was littered with sidewalk oyster carts. The advent of the railroad took them far inland as well. (In Paris, the best oyster joints were always clustered around the terminus of the train lines from Brittany.) Nourishing and plentiful, oysters became a staple food of American dockworkers, rail workers, and landed gentry alike. But overfishing and pollution nearly wiped out the domestic oyster. By 1930 the edible population in New York Harbor — which once numbered in the billions — had vanished. Scarcity led to price hikes. Like lobsters, another former workingman’s grub, fresh oysters became a rich man’s delicacy. From the 1940s through the 1980s, the vast majority of oysters consumed in America came from a can.
Since then, of course, the half shell has seen a revival, spurred by a proliferation of skilled cultivators on the one hand and serious-minded oyster bars on the other. “We are entering an oyster renaissance in North America,” Rowan Jacobsen declares in his lively primer A Geography of Oysters.
Among ostreaphiles — the most parochial of eaters — a spirited rivalry divides North Americans down the middle. West Coasters call Eastern oysters boring — so subtly flavored that all you taste is seawater. East Coasters find Pacific oysters cloyingly fruity. “If I wanted a melon, I’d eat one,” scoffs Jay Shaffer, owner of New York’s Shaffer City oyster bar. “I don’t want distractions — give me the sea.”
My own tastes lie with Shaffer’s, but I’ll admit that the West Coast has the more developed oyster culture. In the coastal communities of Oregon and Washington State, I’ve seen 12-year-old boys with their own oyster knives. Monogrammed. On the shores of Puget Sound, roadside stands sell 50-pound bags of oysters for families to shuck around a picnic table. What the lobster is to New England, the oyster is to the Pacific Northwest.
I will also admit that sampling the smoky-sweet, silver-dollar-size Olympias at Elliott’s Oyster House, in Seattle, made me rethink my East Coast allegiances and seriously consider moving to Seattle. Man those Olys were good.
I encountered even more revelations overseas. At a small café on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, I lucked upon the elusive Ostrea edulis, a.k.a. the Mali Ston, a strong-flavored specimen purportedly favored by Emperor Franz Josef. Mali Ston itself is a fortified medieval harbor town northwest of Dubrovnik, fronting a small protected bay where underground springs and freshwater rivers create an ideal feeding ground for oysters.
A South African friend turned me on to his country’s native Knysna, a pearl of an oyster, nutty and creamy and utterly unique. In Brazil I tried the Chilean borde negro, with its inky-black-rimmed meat and face-slapping saltiness; some years ago it was sold in the United States, but seems to have disappeared since. If you find any, let me know.
I also discovered some unforgettable oyster venues. Paris has, of course, Bofinger, the 1864 Alsatian brasserie off the Place de la Bastille, with its Belle Époque interiors and bow-tied waiters and sidewalk troughs piled high with Fines de Claires, seaweed, and melting ice. But it also has L’Écume St. Honoré, a folksy bar à huitres near the opera house, with cheesy murals of Mont-St.-Michel and piped-in recordings of seagulls. Sophisticated it is not, and yet I’ve never had Belons so pristine. They give you a pail for discarding the shells — a reminder that in France oysters are still an informal, workaday food. (The French reportedly eat 4.4 pounds of oysters per person per year, more than any other people in Europe.)
In Sydney I went three times to the Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay, an oyster’s throw from the Sydney Fish Markets — partly because its Sydney Rocks are sensational, but also because it was the only place I could find that shucks them in-house. Seriously: in Australia oysters are shipped to restaurants “pre-shucked,” stacked like so many teacups in refrigerated crates. This outrageous practice rids the oysters of all their precious liquor, which is half the point of eating them. (For shame, Australia, for shame!)
In London I braved the supercilious maître d’ and exorbitant prices for oysters at Wiltons, a 267-year-old stalwart in St. James (jacket required). The sand-colored walls are hung with portraits of the restaurant’s master shuckers, including Thai émigré Sam Tamsanguan, who won the ’99 world championship for speed-shucking. (He opened 30 in 3 1/2 minutes.) At Wiltons Tamsanguan works at a more measured pace, and he carefully set me up with a dozen British “natives,” a variety of the rare European flat oyster, which has a round, scallop-like shell, a fibrous, almost crunchy texture, and a tangy, metallic aftertaste. They arrived on a dimpled silver platter, with a half of lemon wrapped in cheesecloth — a thoughtful touch — and a generous pour of Sancerre.
Just south of Galway, Ireland, on a weir beside a river that runs into Galway Bay, I spent a blissful afternoon at Moran’s Oyster Cottage, an 18th-century tavern — all pine wood and thatch — immortalized in Seamus Heaney’s poem “Oysters”:
Our shells clacked on the plates
My tongue was a filling estuary.
As boisterously democratic as Wiltons is exclusive, Moran’s feels like some family’s rowdy, boozy reunion. And its Irish Rocks are fabulous: the outer shells fuzzy and green; the inner nacre a blinding white; the meat resembling (and even tasting like) delicately grilled eggplant. Afterward you can stroll beside the estuary to the beds where the oysters are raised.
There’s something spiritual about eating food steps from where it was born. But the most extraordinary oyster bar I visited lies nowhere near a working oyster bed. Rather, it sits atop a high-rise hotel in Kowloon. Because of Hong Kong’s relatively open import laws — and also because rich mainland Chinese visitors will pay through the nose for this sort of thing — the Sheraton’s Oyster & Wine Bar is able to source oysters from all around the planet. On any given night you might find specimens from Tasmania, Oregon, British Columbia, Colchester, Long Island, Brittany, Japan, New Zealand, Namibia — Namibia! — Chile, even Irish Rocks from Galway Bay. (For all I knew they came from Moran’s.) Reading the menu is like scanning the arrivals board at Hong Kong Airport. Indeed, the Sheraton’s Oyster & Wine Bar may be the least green restaurant on earth: every item on the menu takes at least a four-hour flight to get here. (Because of pollution concerns, Hong Kong’s own oysters are no longer eaten raw.) Except for the stirring views of Victoria Harbour, there’s nothing “local” about the place. But for oyster-chasing obsessives like me, it offers a chance to see the world — or at least taste it — in two dozen slurps.
The Namibian turned out to have a mouthfeel like a cream-filled donut, less oyster than oyster mousse. The Fine de Bretagne was a coppery, ornery beast, the size of a small banana. The Tasmanians were in even better condition than those I’d had in Australia; same with the Colchesters and Oregon Kumamotos. Here was final proof that oysters — stubbornly sedentary for most of their lives — can actually travel quite well, safely sealed in their shells and bathed in their own life-sustaining liquor. If properly transported and stored, an oyster will survive for weeks out of the water, and should lose little of its character in transit.
On my last afternoon in Hong Kong, I dropped by the Sheraton to survey the day’s oyster offerings, and my heart leapt at a familiar name:
Damariscottas (Maine, U.S.A)
Sweet Lord. You have to understand: Damariscottas are my all-time favorite oysters. Their beds lie just upstream from the chilly Atlantic on the tidal Damariscotta River. (Some of the more famous Damariscotta “brands” include Pemaquid, Glidden Point, and Dodge Cove.) The confluence of fresh- and saltwater infuses them with that coveted combination of sweetness and brine. Surviving the cold requires a strong constitution, so Damariscottas are hardy, thick-shelled oysters, firm in texture and (I like to think) resolve, not unlike the burly guys in galoshes who haunt the wharves of Maine’s midcoast. They taste like — well, like how I imagine drowning might taste, but in a wholly good way. And here they were, a dozen time zones away, in Kow-freaking-loon.
In a fit of irrational exuberance, I shelled out $78 for a dozen. They were worth every cent. I knocked back the first, and bang — just like always, I was immediately back on the beach, eight years old, dashing from the frigid surf to the warm comfort of a Star Wars towel, the wind in my ears and the salty Atlantic on my tongue.
Sure, they might have tasted even better plucked fresh from the Damariscotta River. But I prefer to imagine that, like me, they’d gained something in the journey. Or maybe I was overthinking it. Maybe they just tasted like home.